Chrysler workers push back

Bosses want ‘fewer and cheaper workers’

This article is based on a talk given by Grevatt at Workers World Party meetings in New York and Detroit.

First-tier and second-tier UAW workers at parts plant in California.Photo: Albert Limon

First-tier and second-tier UAW workers at parts plant in California.
Photo: Albert Limon

I have been a United Auto Workers Chrysler worker for 28 years. I have never experienced anything on the shop floor like this movement that has emerged around this contract vote. It was not even close — 2-to-1 on the average voting “no” and in some plants higher, with 87 percent “no” at the Toledo Jeep plant.

Workers became organizers. They made T-shirts, rallied, talked to their coworkers and got leaflets around. These are things we are experts at, but workers became experts almost overnight.

Where did it come from?

Capitalism is at a dead end and baring its teeth at the working class. Look at a company like Veolia or a CEO like Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Sergio Marchionne, who famously said the UAW had to get used to “a culture of poverty.” These kinds of bosses are on the ascendancy, and you have the far right of the Republican Party on the rise, but the workers and oppressed are on the ascendancy, too. “Black Lives Matter” has awakened the masses of all nationalities. In this context, workers at FCA sent a message loud and clear, as they chanted in Toledo, “Hell no, Sergio!”

The 2009 bankruptcy, which the company calls a “near-death experience,” is in the past now. Profits are sky-high. Marchionne paid himself $72 million last year — more than twice the compensation of Ford CEO Alan Mullally. Auto sales are actually higher today than before the 2008 auto recession that triggered the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies. FCA has gained market share and has seen sales gains for 66 consecutive months.

The workers want back what they gave up.

But the auto bosses and the Wall Street bankers — who make billions in profit through interest payments from the auto companies and are the major shareholders of Ford, General Motors and FCA — are driven to hold the lid on labor costs.

The New York Times explained the bosses’ cost-cutting strategy four years ago, in a feature piece about GM’s Orion, Mich., assembly plant, closed during bankruptcy and reopened in 2010. This plant was retooled to build small cars, but at a higher profit margin. The Times bluntly stated that “the radically revamped factory here operates with fewer and cheaper workers.”

More vehicles made by fewer workers making lower wages — thanks to [the] “two-tier” [wage system]. It’s the formula for massive profits during a boom and the insurance policy in the event of a capitalist downturn. The subprime auto lending — like what triggered the housing recession — with longer loan payment terms as high as seven years, and all of the easy credit that has fueled the sales boom, could turn into its opposite. The fear of an inevitable downturn creates downward pressure on labor costs. Now, however, the bosses’ formula has put them on a collision course with the UAW.

The 2011 contract raised wages for second-tier workers but left a huge pay gap between them and the “traditional” workers. The wage gap is compounded by a gap in benefits and the fact that second-tier workers are frozen out of a traditional pension. “Two-tier,” a hypothetical problem when introduced in the 2007 contract, means now that almost half of FCA workers make the lower wage. They are our union sisters and brothers who have worked alongside us for the past five years. The injustice has become glaring.

The contract that was recently rejected included another significant pay raise, but did not fix the core problem of two-tier: that it violates the basic union principle of equal pay for equal work. On top of the unfairness, workers are feeling the rising cost of living in a real way. Capitalism at a dead end creates not only a downward push on wages, it creates inflationary pressures on our pocketbooks.

The other key contract issue, besides “cheaper workers,” is fewer workers. When the new contract was rolled out, attached to it was a highly touted $5.3 billion investment plan. This included moving all car production out of UAW plants, presumably to Mexico. FCA announced a radical restructuring, moving products out of one plant and into another. The outcome of this musical chairs game is an increased number of vehicles built per hour — a high-tech speedup designed to cut workers. So another big reason we voted “no” was to protect our jobs.

After the “no” vote, the UAW and FCA went back to the table. The UAW issued FCA a strike deadline of midnight, Oct. 7. Locals shifted into strike mode, putting signs on sticks, handing out instructions and getting the workers ready. About 20 minutes before the deadline, when evening shift workers were getting their minds in gear to begin a work stoppage — for many their first — the UAW announced a tentative agreement.

This contract does what workers had been told could not be done: it gives every current second-tier worker a path to top pay. That’s a real victory! But by denying equal benefits and pensions and creating new tiers for future workers, temporary workers and axle plant workers, the contract still reinforces inequalities. That only exacerbates division and conflict.

The investment plan is spelled out in more detail and, as workers feared, equals fewer workers. In the Detroit area, Sterling Heights Assembly Plant could gain 1,750 jobs if the Ram truck is moved there from Warren Truck Assembly, but Warren Truck could lose 2,400 jobs — a net loss of 650.

Those are the core issues in this contract struggle. Shall we let the bourgeoisie keep pushing ahead with its formula for fewer and cheaper workers? Or will we push back?

After raising the specter of a strike, whether or not the UAW leaders had any intention of following through on the threat, they put the idea in workers’ heads that they had the power to stop production and force changes. Voting on the new proposed contract is scheduled for Oct. 20 and 21. Whatever the outcome, the struggle against “two-tier” and to protect jobs has awakened a spirit of solidarity.